February 15, 2001
Scott Svonkin: Pulling Together
"Many organ-izations don't make it clear It's not about money."
To find out where Scott Svonkin gets his Jewish commitment, you needn't search beyond his own parents.
"When I was in the third grade," he recalled, "my mother once made potato latkes for Chanukah. She didn't make it for just my class, she made thousands of them for the entire school."
Even at that early age, Svonkin realized what a grand gesture this was. His mother not only made the few Jewish kids at his school feel included but promoted some Jewish enlightenment among the children of other cultures.
In fact, it was growing up in a multiethnic neighborhood in Monterey Park, as well as in a large family that included an adopted sister of Latino origin, that drove home the importance of being able to work with other communities. This lesson has carried him far in his municipal politics career, which has included stints working in Mayor Tom Bradley's office and with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, daughter of L.A.'s first Latino politician, Rep. Edward R. Roybal. Svonkin, 35, was recently appointed chief of staff for 42nd Assembly District Rep. Paul Koretz.
Svonkin started his political career as an adolescent, with his heavy involvement in his Alhambra temple's chapter of United Synagogue Youth. Since those days, he has spent as much time devoted to Jewish organizations as he has to public office. As a result, he has a very opinionated view on where young adults stand in today's Jewish community.
"We're judged by how much money we can give, not what kind of ideas we have," Svonkin said. "Many Jewish organizations don't make it clear that it's not about money. They are not meeting their core needs."
Svonkin believes that these organizations need to ensure that every event they mount has a pronounced Jewish component, or else, he said, "There's no difference between, say, an ACCESS, and what non-Jewish youth organizations do."
Svonkin has participated on a couple of United Jewish Committee-sponsored Washington conferences. He observed that despite positive aspects, such as networking opportunities, they provided "little preparation beforehand and no real follow-up."
"The Federation does a great job cultivating donors," Svonkin added. "If only they could invest that same energy in cultivating young leaders."
Svonkin thinks that organizations should eschew some of the fundraiser parties and cocktails in favor of some real hands-on programs that speak to a young person's chief concerns: establishing career and personal life. He envisions a mentoring program where an established donor or staff member would possibly meet with a prospective young leader once a month, "giving advice, making a phone call on someone's behalf. Let them into the leadership posts and let them make decisions."
"The Federation has contacts in every industry," Svonkin said. "They should get donors to mentor people. Sure, not all of them would have the time, but I think a lot of them would do it."
Involvement is the key, Svonkin believes. "I gave the most to the Federation when I was most involved," he said. "I think that's how most people are involved. Especially a young professional with limited financial resources."
As the newly installed public policy chairman of B'nai B'rith Southern California, Svonkin has undertaken the challenge of helping an organization with a solid past -- which includes spawning the Anti-Defamation League, the Hillel system, and City of Hope -- overcome a shaky future. As with many Jewish organizations, young membership at B'nai B'rith has eroded over the years. Svonkin, along with a core group of young peers, hopes "to help rejuvenate the organization for the next decade. I think we can turn things around."
Svonkin, through his B'nai B'rith efforts, wants to address important issues faced by the Jewish community in an honest way.
One person Svonkin looks up to is Earl Grantiz, the man who appointed him to the Valley Jewish Community Relations Committee role he held from 1997-99. Grantiz, now president of Jewish Home for the Aging, worked hard to involve rival agencies and organizations.
Svonkin himself is embarking on the next chapter in his life as his activity beyond his job, his B'nai B'rith work, and the occasional workshop he teaches at Valley College take a back seat to fatherhood. Svonkin and wife Jennifer Shapiro -- they married in 1999 after Svonkin's dramatic proposal via a Sunset Boulevard billboard -- just welcomed their first child, Rose Alise.
Svonkin has achieved his professional and personal goals. But though his ties with the Jewish community are strong, he wants to remain accessible and help inspire and motivate others.
"The reality is just as we have a limited number of donor dollars, we have a limited number of leaders," Svonkin said. "We need to pull together."